A Free-Market Energy Blog

Back to Gerald Ford? (Thomas Friedman on energy policy in 2007)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 26, 2021

The mainstream energy intelligentsia (MEI) has had it wrong for many decades. Today, it is climate change and the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels (really dense mineral energies). A half century ago (1971 would begin the problems with natural gas shortages and Nixon’s price control order that included petroleum), it was the same under a different rationale.

“Ford called for zero oil imports by 1985. Instead, we imported five million barrels a day then. In 2006, imports will average almost 14 million barrels a day. Had we achieved everything Ford proposed, the price of oil today would be $20 a barrel, not $60, the polar ice caps might not be melting, the polar bear might still have a chance, and our children would have a future.”

– Dr. Phillip Verleger (2007). Quoted in Friedman, below. [Verleger is currently senior fellow in climate at the Niskanen Center]

The column below by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times (January 5, 2007), “The First Energy President,” is a humbling example of how one of the leading journalists of his era got it wrong decades after he first got it wrong. The narrative? The U.S. is running out of oil (and natural gas) and has a ‘national security’ problem with oil imports.

This particular article attempts to resurrect the energy legacy of Gerald Ford, who signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 with the overarching goal to make the U.S. energy independent by 1985. “On balance,” the 38th President stated, “I find that this legislation is constructive and puts into place the first elements of a comprehensive energy policy.”

Friedman’s go-to economist, Philip K. Verleger, Jr., now senior fellow, Climate, at the Niskanen Center (another member of the MEI) shares equal blame in the article below.

Friedman’s essay follows:

Now that President Gerald Ford has been buried with all the honors he deserved, it is time to discuss a proper memorial. I would suggest the Gerald Ford Energy Independence Act.

Few people remember today, but “Gerald Ford was the first U.S. president to really use the levers of the presidency to try to break our addiction to oil,” said the energy economist Philip Verleger Jr. “He was way ahead of his time.”

Well, his time has come again — and then some.

The greatest thing George Bush could do — for President Ford’s legacy and his own — would be to dedicate his coming State of the Union address to completing the energy independence agenda that Mr. Ford initiated 32 years ago in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo and energy shock.

As the page titled “Energy” from the Ford presidential library Web site reminds us: “Early in his administration, President Ford said that he would not sit by and watch the nation continue to talk about an energy crisis and do nothing about it. Nor, he said, would he accept halfway measures which failed to change the direction that has made our nation so vulnerable to foreign economic interests. The president proposed firm but necessary measures designed to achieve energy independence for the U.S. by 1985, and to regain our position of world leadership in energy.”

In his 1975 State of the Union speech, President Ford laid out his vision: “I have a very deep belief in America’s capabilities. Within the next 10 years, my program envisions: 200 major nuclear power plants; 250 major new coal mines; 150 major coal-fired power plants; 30 major new [oil] refineries; 20 major new synthetic fuel plants; the drilling of many thousands of new oil wells; the insulation of 18 million homes; and the manufacturing and the sale of millions of new automobiles, trucks and buses that use much less fuel. … In another crisis — the one in 1942 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt said this country would build 60,000 military aircraft. By 1943, production in that program had reached 125,000 aircraft annually. They did it then. We can do it now.”

Obviously, President Ford’s emphasis on coal and domestic oil came in an age when most people were unaware of climate change. Still, Mr. Ford wasn’t just all talk on energy. He used his presidential powers to impose a $3-a-barrel fee on imported oil to reduce consumption. That was a big deal, noted Mr. Verleger, because the average cost of imported crude at the time was only $10.76 a barrel.

Yes, you read that right. A Republican president actually imposed an import fee on oil to curb consumption! Yes, President Bush, it can be done! The republic survived!

Thanks to the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 1975 and other measures, Mr. Ford’s energy legacy includes: the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for use in an emergency; the phasing out of domestic price controls on oil to encourage more exploration; major investment in alternative energy research; assistance to states in developing energy conservation programs; and, most important, the creation of the first compulsory mileage standards for U.S. automobiles.

Those mileage standards have barely been tightened since 1975 — because some idiotic congressmen from Michigan, who thought they were protecting Detroit, have blocked efforts to raise them. So, Japanese automakers innovated more in that area, and the rest is history — or in the case of Detroit, obituary.

Every 10 years we say to ourselves, “If only we had done the right thing 10 years ago.” Well, President Bush has a chance in his State of the Union to call on Americans to honor Mr. Ford by completing his vision. But it means asking Americans to do some hard things: accepting a gasoline or carbon tax; inducing Detroit to make more fuel-efficient cars, trucks and plug-in hybrids; setting a national requirement for utilities to provide 20 percent of their electricity from renewable wind, solar, hydro or nuclear power by 2015; and, finally, making large-scale investments in mass transit.

It is stunning that since 9/11 the Bush team has never mounted a campaign to get Americans to conserve energy.

“Ford called for zero oil imports by 1985,” said Mr. Verleger. “Instead, we imported five million barrels a day then. In 2006, imports will average almost 14 million barrels a day. Had we achieved everything Ford proposed, the price of oil today would be $20 a barrel, not $60, the polar ice caps might not be melting, the polar bear might still have a chance, and our children would have a future.”

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